Jeffrey Katzenberg 1-on-1: Inside Monsters vs. Aliens

Katzenberg 1-on-1: Monsters vs. Aliens

In yesterday’s interview, Jeffrey Katzenberg stood on his bully pulpit to expound on the virtues of the Dreamworks’ new 3D process, InTru3D. As the CEO of Dreamworks Animation, Katzenberg doesn’t have to be told that there is a lot of difference between talk and action.

Therefore the Spring ’09 release of DWA’s next feature film, Monsters vs. Aliens. Katzenberg came armed with 30 minutes of completed film to back up his claim that 3D will be the third great major filmmaking revolution, behind sound and color.

“We do have a unique way of making our movies,” Katzenberg said. “We want people to see our films and say ‘That’s a Dreamworks.’ It took us a long, long time to get to. There are distinguishing things about a Dreamworks Animated movie I think people would recognize.

“The stories tend to be a bit sophisticated, a bit complex. They also tend to be a little subversive and irreverent. We have a fair amount of parody and satire. We also have very big comedy actors as stars. Almost every one of them has an adult spectrum to them. Our protagonists are adult characters instead of otherwise.”

Katzenberg also doesn’t deny the prototype of this style is the first Shrek film.

Shrek I sort of defined it,” he acknowledged. “It was sort of our Holy Grail moment. It directionally defined what we wanted our movies to be. That’s now seven years ago. We have had times when we’ve come close to it. There’s been time where we went a little bit to the right of it. Shrek I is sort of the bull’s eye for us.

Monsters vs. Aliens fits into that. It’s probably a little more satirical, but it does fall very much into that. You know, Walt Disney had a very great mission statement, which you’ve heard a million times before. He said ‘I make movies for children and the child in all of us.’ That was very much a guiding light for that company and it still very much is today. After 14 years, I can tell you, with a wink and a smile, Dreamworks is for adults and the adult in every child.”

The voice cast this time includes the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Steve Colbert, Keifer Sutherland, Seth Rogen and Hugh Laurie. Directed by Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman, the film posits Earth being invaded by gigantic alien robots set on the standard destruction of the American Way, with tons upon tons of real estate going up in the process. After an initial peace offering from The President (Colbert)--which incorporates the notes from Close Encounters, the disco hit “Space Race” and the B-52’s “Planet Claire”—is rejected, General W.R. Monger (Sutherland) says it’s time to bring out the big guys.

In this case, the big guys are a 350 foot tall cuddly maggot, Insectosaurus, a super-scientist with the head of a cockroach (Laurie), a blob named Bob (Seth Rogen), and reptile-kind’s answer to lonely women, The Missing Link (Will Arnett). New to the team is a 50 foot woman who uses SUV’s as speed skates named Susan Murphy (Witherspoon).

The four scenes presented included the President making his peace offering to the giant robot alien, a conference between the President and his staff in a top secret war room, Susan meeting her new team mates for the first time and a battle sequence where the aliens and monsters tear up a ton of Northern California real estate. Katzenberg denies using the California setting as a way of poking fun at his friends at Pixar, ILM or Lucasfilm.

“The movie idea was actually developed by the directors who are also writers, Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon,” said Katzenberg. “Rob directed Shark Tales and Conrad was co-director of Shrek 2. We had this project in development that was a very sketchy idea, an homage to monster movies. Those guys love those movies. You can see it because there’s all kinds of homages throughout the film. They know a lot more than I know. Also, we just thought it would be a great theatrical idea to do a film featuring monsters.

“To me, the real exciting stuff isn’t the wowwee action scenes but the one where we go into the war room, tracking that guy with all the folders, and actually move through it. You really feel like you’re entering into it. It’s the next best thing to being there.”

Yet, as one can imagine, probably the biggest problem facing Vernon and Letterman wasn’t coming up with the script, but applying their new technology to it.

“Ultimately what it’s all about is control of the scene,” says Katzenberg. “What control allows you to do is dial up and down within a single frame how much you’re pushing that dimensional field. Having that level of control allows you to eliminate, or better yet control, that level of eye strain, even though I admit completely eliminating it is something that’s difficult to overcome because we still aren’t able to eliminate the perfect alignment between right eye and left eye.

“Also, even with more control, there’s still the matter of learning how to control the tools. In that, there is at least if not more art than there is science. What this new visual technology has done is given us more control. Now it’s up to the artists to see how they can use it in different ways. Just because they have the control doesn’t mean that they’ll use it the best possible way. For instance, there are people who have a great difference between their right eye and left eye as far as seeing. That could put a strain on them. Anyone who has actually had eye surgery, so they have one eye for distance and one eye for reading, this will give them a headache.

“The board artists now understand that they are not working in a flat medium,” says Katzenberg. “There are now three dimensions in play. They have this extra depth to deal with. They are still drawing storyboards understanding that it must work in this extra dimension. There is both a science and an art to this. Cinematography should be part of your education. You should learn about cameras, lenses and exposures. The thing is, now that you’ve learned how to speak French, you now have to learn how to speak Russian, because it is a new language.”

Fortunately for Dreamworks, their young staff got the technology under their control, and he gives a lot of credit to Vernon for this. .

“There’s a wonderful amount of knowledge from a person like Conrad Vernon,” Katzenberg acknowledges. “This is his second movie as a director, but has 12 years in the business. We have also about 100 people come fresh out of school every year. We actually recruit pretty aggressively every year. I’d say the average age of the people who work at Dreamworks is about 28. I admit I drag the age up a lot.”

What’s also interested is there will be three side effects due to this new process.

The first is the eyeglass industry will have a new product to sell to what has previously been a pretty stale market.

“I went to a company called Luxottica,” says Katzenberg, “the largest eyeglass manufacturer in the world. I told them how I think this thing is going to be revolutionary and a very big opportunity for the eyeglass industry. So I challenged them to see what they can do about movie lenses. Next year they expect to have a glass that when you are outside will be sunglasses and when you’re in a theater will transition to movie glasses. I think honestly in a year or two people will start owning their own glasses. You won’t look as geeky as we did when we put those paper red and green glasses on. I already have my own little clip on to my glasses.”

Katzenberg also believes the new process will put a monkey wrench in video piracy.

“Did anyone lift their glasses up while watching the clips? It looked kind of fuzzy didn’t it?,” he asked. “The interesting thing about piracy is about 90% of it comes from some guy sitting in the theater with a camcorder and shooting the movie. Most of it’s done by amateurs. That’s $6 billion a year the industry loses to piracy. You can’t do that with 3D. Well, you can, but I don’t thing anybody is going to buy it. A wonderful hidden value in 3D is it’s extremely difficult to pirate. People will be able to, but it will take some real technical know how to do that, and that’s certainly not in the average person’s domain. They don’t have the expertise of the equipment to do it.”

Not that the process is perfect. Katzenberg admits that home entertainment will still have to be in trad 2D.

“A couple of things to keep in mind is the presentation of 3D is it has to include your peripheral vision,” says Katzenberg. “That means, by definition, you have to have a very big screen. Now most people today are starting to get 50” to 60” flat screen TVs. You also have to sit about 50” to 60” away from your TV. Now most people except crazy fans sit that far from their TVs. Further, their rooms are not build so they can be that far away. Also, if four or five or you want to all watch at the same time, you would have to be very close knit as you will have to be very squished in there to have the experience. Soon as you get out of the area, you lose perspective very, very fast.

“Also, any light source at all, whether it’s a light bulb, lamp, outdoor light coming through the window, will effect it. Unless you’re a vampire, you tend not to live in completely blackened rooms. Light very quickly disintegrates the effect of 3D. I mean I checked my house to find a perfect place to watch 3-D, and it was a coat closet. Unfortunately, I can’t get a 60” TV in there. If I could, I don’t think I would sit there for 2-3 hours anyway.

“So I think the experience will take a fairly long time before it makes it into the home,” he said. “It will need new screens and hardware to do it. It’s not that it’s unreasonably expensive, but a lot of people have made the investment into flat screens, and the usual life of a television is about 10-15 years. So, the majority of people have bought flat screens in the last three years are going to take a while before they replace them. Honestly, I think what will take the lead in getting 3-D into the home is gaming. That will probably be the first place you will see it come from.”

As for future innovations? Katzenberg doesn’t expect anyone to have anything like the Star Trek holodeck in the immediate future. Still, he does see further progress down the pike.

“Here are the two next things,” says Katzenberg. “One will be to watch without glasses. It will be called ‘autostereo.’ The other, which is starting to now show up on billboards, is lenticular. Those two sciences are coming down the road, within 10 or 20 years. Right now they work with very small sizes, but when it starts to get large the images fall apart.

“The problem with holography is its all dependent on the environment you’re in. If you tried to do it in a theater like this, it wouldn’t work. You actually have to build a different physical environment to show something because you are not projecting across the room, but projecting down.”

“There are a number of different systems out there, and they are all pretty good. They also have all kinds of different plusses and minuses about them. Some of the systems use a white screen and polarized lens. They are a little heavier lens and the glasses are reusable. There’s another called Active that look more like goggles. Those IMAX has done. Most theaters are going to move to polarized because they are the most graphical.”

“Normally, artists have an idea of something they want to do. We have a technology department to help them do it. It isn’t the tech guys saying ‘Wow! We have this great idea!’ and then the artists figuring out what to do with it. So, for instance, one of our future movies is called How to Train Your Dragon and we want to fly dragons. They have to be able to dive bomb into water and fly through fire and 19 other different things. So we go to the technology people and say, ‘We can’t do any of that, and we have to have the film done in a 1 ½ years. What are you going to do?’ This is why of the 1,800 people at Dreamworks, 200 are devoted to just the R&D. This is one of the few times where the technology revealed itself first and then we had to think of how to take advantage of that.”

Fans of animation will see the final results this spring.

IN PART 3: 3D isn’t the only new area Dreamworks is exploring. in our final part we discuss moves into television and other areas.

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